Yiddish? Why Don't We Speak Judeo-French?

By Jochnowitz, George | Midstream, July-August 2008 | Go to article overview

Yiddish? Why Don't We Speak Judeo-French?


Jochnowitz, George, Midstream


I am an English speaker and therefore a reflection of Jewish language shift. I am told that as a child my first language was Yiddish. Perhaps it was, although as far back as I can remember, I always thought in English. Be that as it may, I don't speak Yiddish very well. My cousins don't speak it at all, although my parents and all my aunts and uncles were born in Poland. Those who were born before World War I were born in what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire. My maternal grandparents came to the United States in their fifties and never quite learned English.

I can speak Yiddish better than my cousins because my field is linguistics. I love languages. My Yiddish is quite regional, partly because I love dialects, but mostly because I spoke Yiddish only with relatives. When I was a child in Borough Park, Brooklyn, all the children spoke English only among themselves. One of my cousins lived with his paternal grandparents--not my grandparents--and spoke Yiddish to them, but ten years later, he couldn't speak the language at all.

There are many factors determining whether or not language shift takes place in a community, especially if the community is transplanted. A determining factor, I believe, is whether or not the language spoken by the local population and the official language of the country are the same. In a country where most people speak the official language of the country in their homes, Jews speak the official language or a Jewish variety of that language. Thus, Jews speak English---or Jewish English--in America, French in France, Hungarian in Hungary, etc. In the Russian Empire, on the other hand, where the official language was Russian, Jews were likely to live in towns where their neighbors spoke Ukrainian or Lithuanian or Polish or Moldavian or some other language that wasn't Russian. In such a situation, the Jews spoke Yiddish. In big cities like Kiev and Odessa where the local language was Russian, Jews switched from Yiddish to Russian.

After World War I, Russian spread into towns and villages where it had not been spoken before. As this happened, Jews switched their language to Russian. When an independent Poland came into existence, Jews began to use Polish more and more.

In 1848, the Austrian Empire became the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Hungarian became the official language in Hungary, in what is now Slovakia, and in Transylvania, now a part of Romania--all areas where there were many Hungarian speakers. Jews who lived in areas where there were enough Hungarian speakers to ensure that Hungarian was the lingua franca of the community switched from Yiddish to Hungarian. In communities where there were no speakers of Slovakian or Romanian, Yiddish was forgotten.

This situation was reversed in the United States. Hasidic Jews who were speakers of Hungarian in Europe are speakers of Yiddish in Brooklyn. Solomon Poll reports that Hasidic men from Hungarian-speaking countries speak Yiddish among themselves but women speak Hungarian. I found an analogous situation among Lubavitcher Hasidim a generation ago, where the men spoke Yiddish, the women spoke Russian, and the girls spoke English. Together, they all spoke Yiddish. In the Soviet Union, they all spoke Russian. In America, Russian is dying out among the children.

In a Hasidic community, the women belong to the outside community and the Hasidic world at the same time. Many of the men simply belong to the Hasidic world. The women live in America, where the official language is English and where most citizens speak English. The Yeshiva students live only in Williamsburg or Crown Heights, neighborhoods that are analogous to towns in Belarus or Transylvania. In Hasidic sections of Williamsburg, the Jews speak Yiddish; their neighbors speak English or Spanish. The situation is somewhat different in Crown Heights, where more English is spoken. Furthermore, Lubavitcher young men go out on the streets and try to persuade Jewish passers-by to put on tefillin if they are men, and to make the blessing over the lulav and etrog during Sukkot. …

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